Update This is back in the news. This (lightly edited) post originally appeared 28 February 2012.
Academic philosophers Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva—shockingly working in Australia1, a land where commonsense was once held sacred—have written a peer-reviewed paper in which they say that killing newborns is A-OK, and even in some cases to be encouraged.
Their “After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?” is in the Journal of Medical Ethics.
I am not completely convinced that Giubilini and Minerva are in earnest, as academics frequently say silly things for effect. (Both are also possessed of nice smiles—but then Stalin had a terrific moustache). But we also know that philosophers and logicians are prone to lunacy, and so we are right to suspect any radical position is the product of an unhinged mind.
The paper begins by claiming that “having a child can itself be an unbearable burden” to a mother. Unbearable is that which cannot be born. It is an extreme word describing an impossibility and not an unlikelihood. Since a birth and the subsequent care of a child is a contingent event, we cannot claim that any birth and rearing is unbearable in advance. Even if it turns out unbearable in some instances, it is not always so and cannot be predicted to be so perfectly. Thus, GM have begun their argument with a false premise.2
GM next state a truth: some mothers kill their fetuses when the mothers learn that raising a baby will cause them to miss out on clothes shopping. No, I’m kidding. They abort when they learn the fetus has, for instance, Down’s syndrome. Or because having a baby would be inconvenient (the shopping quip isn’t far off).
They remark that the Netherland’s “Groningen Protocol (2002) allows to actively terminate the life of ‘infants with a hopeless prognosis who experience what parents and medical experts deem to be unbearable suffering'” There’s that unbearable again. Since suffering is individual and contingent, it cannot be that “medical experts” are perfectly accurate at always diagnosing “unbearable suffering.” Thus, we have another false premise, and one fallacy: “experts deem” is an appeal to authority.
GM appear to recognize these mistakes when they next say, “it is hard to find definitive arguments to the effect that life with certain pathologies is not worth living, even when those pathologies would constitute acceptable reasons for abortion.” This is true: definitive arguments do not exist.
However, they quickly brush sanity aside and claim that to raise children with Down’s syndrome would be an “unbearable burden on the family and on society as a whole, when the state economically provides for their care.” We must resist the joke that to read this paper is “unbearable.” But notice that they have committed the fallacy, as many Enlightened do, of equating morality with money. So another false premise and another fallacy.
From these inauspicious beginnings, they derive this gem:
Therefore, we argue that, when circumstances occur after birth such that they would have justified abortion, what we call after-birth abortion should be permissible. [emphasis in original]
They do not choose to call this killing infanticide, presumably because they are squeamish. It’s easier tout the slitting of newborns’ throats from a distant ivory tower than in the hospital with the mother spread-eagled on a gurney. One wonders whether GM would change their tune were they charged with enforcing their argument, and made to pull the knives across that delicate flesh.
But this is an obvious appeal to emotion, a fallacy on my part. Stupid of me. Strike it from the record and let’s push on.
Candidates for infanticide would “include cases where the newborn has the potential to have an (at least) acceptable life, but the well-being of the family is at risk.” Again, the “well-being” of a family is a contingent matter, and not subject to perfect prediction. Plus, perfectly healthy babies pushed out from well-to-do mothers may end up having worse lives than sickly babies born to poor mothers, thus causing their families more pain than any Down’s syndrome child. This highlights that in killing the baby, we are making an imperfect forecast of future events. Consider this is a healthy child which is killed, merely for the “well-being” of the family.
Next comes a genuine non sequitur: “Failing to bring a new person into existence cannot be compared with the wrong caused by procuring the death of an existing person.” It is a true statement, but what makes it a non sequitur is that the sentence is equivalent to (say), “Failing to bring a new person into existence cannot be compared with the wrong caused by failing to fill the car with gas before a long trip.” Since it is true that the two cannot be compared (in both examples), there is no point in mentioning both, unless one’s purpose is to obscure.
GM offer two more justifications for baby killing. I examine these claims next (which are given in bold).
The newborn and the fetus are morally equivalent
“The moral status of an infant is equivalent to that of a fetus in the sense that both lack those properties that justify the attribution of a right to life to an individual.” This is a restatement of the claim and not an argument.
We take ‘person’ to mean an individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her. This means that many non-human animals and mentally retarded human individuals are persons, but that all the individuals who are not in the condition of attributing any value to their own existence are not persons.
It is simply false to state that an infant is not self aware. Their self-attributed “value to their own existence” might be small, but small is not zero. As an aside, notice that they generously allow animals personhood, which partially solves the psychological riddle that those most desirous of abortion often elevate the welfare of animals above people. But never mind that. We have another (contingent and) demonstrably false premise.
Actually, two. Notice that they say that some mentally retarded “human individuals” are not persons. They merely claim this, and it is obviously false.
Their next non sequitur comes in reminding us that we sometimes execute criminals. We also kill cows to make hamburgers. Both facts are irrelevant to whether babies are human beings. Once again, GM have an inkling that they have made a mistake, so they continue:
Our point here is that, although it is hard to exactly determine when a subject starts or ceases to be a ‘person’, a necessary condition for a subject to have a right to X is that she is harmed by a decision to deprive her of X.
The premise that it is “hard” to determine when a “subject” becomes a person is false, but let them have it. But we cannot accept the fallacy that a person has a right to life only if she is “harmed” by depriving her of life. This is simply begging the question: it asserts what GM purport to prove.
GM add that “hardly can a newborn be said to have aims” so that they are not harmed from removing the potential for having aims. This is false, and blatantly so. A baby (we can only hope) does not have the aim of becoming an academic philosopher at so early an age, but it at least has the aims of sleeping and eating, both pleasurable activities. From this false premise, GM reason:
On the other hand, not only aims but also well-developed plans are concepts that certainly apply to those people (parents, siblings, society) who could be negatively or positively affected by the birth of that child. Therefore, the rights and interests of the actual people involved should represent the prevailing consideration in a decision about abortion and after-birth abortion.
This is absurd utilitarianism, which begs the question and asserts that economics (or utility) decides who is human. It also contains the false premise (as before) that people know what they will want in the future.
The fetus and the newborn are potential persons
They claim that newborns are “potential persons because they can develop, thanks to their own biological mechanisms, those properties which will make them ‘persons’ in the sense of ‘subjects of a moral right to life': that is, the point at which they will be able to make aims and appreciate their own life.”
It might be claimed that someone is harmed because she is prevented from becoming a person capable of appreciating her own being alive. Thus, for example, one might say that we would have been harmed if our mothers had chosen to [kill]3 us as soon as we were born. However, whereas you can benefit someone by bringing her into existence (if her life is worth living), it makes no sense to say that someone is harmed by being prevented from becoming an actual person.
This is more question begging and poor writing. A “someone” is already a person. We are trying to prove a non-person becomes a person: this just restates that “appreciation” of aims is what makes a baby human.
A male gamete is not a person, nor is the female egg. Neither alone (if left to themselves) are potential people. When joined, the fertilized egg (which we can call a fetus) is either a person or not. If the fetus is not a human being, then there must be some contingent event which causes the fetus (as it grows) to “switch” from non-human being to human being.
GM say that this event is if the fetus can be harmed. Killing it is certainly a kind of harm, but they don’t like this definition (the implications being obvious), so they switch their definition of “harm” to the deprivation of future “aims” (or something). They say that infants cannot have aims, therefore they are not morally human.
But the fetus has aims. This is an observational truth, one not subject to quibble. Fetuses kick, they eat, they sleep, their intellects while diminutive are active. It is only true that the aims of the fetus are not the same as, say, GM’s aims.
GM dodge the big question: when. If the newborn baby doesn’t have aims and isn’t morally human, then when does it? What contingent, measurable event turns the newborn baby into a human being? When it can talk and say, “I want”? Their lame response is “we do not put forward any claim about the moment at which after-birth abortion would no longer be permissible.”
Now, since they do not answer the question which is the main point of their paper, we are justified in calling them whatever Australianism is most insulting.
Update Apparently, GM was in earnest. See this report.
Thanks to reader Alan Grey for suggesting this topic.
1Giubilini is based at the University of Milan, but also has an appointment at the Centre for Human Bioethics, Monash University.
2You might claim that they meant inconvenient instead of unbearable, but you would be fooling yourself.
3GM used the word “killed.”